Artificial intelligence and robotics technology has advanced rapidly over the last few years, along with machine learning. 

As with any new technology that seemingly appears overnight, there’s a great deal of confusion and misinformation around. There’s fear too, which is understandable when it comes to something that could potentially replace around 800 million jobs worldwide.  

Many people believe AI and robotics to be one and the same. Others assume that robotics is a subset of AI – or the other way around. It’s sometimes tricky to grasp how these two technologies fit together, and how they’ll be applied to business processes and government systems in the future. 

So, it’s time for some myth busting. Let’s take a moment to understand the key differences between AI and robotics.  

Are AI and robotics the same? 

The simple answer to this is that these two technologies are entirely separate. However, there is a space where they overlap, within artificially intelligent robots. It’s within this space that much of the confusion lies, and sometimes creates the stuff of dystopian science fiction.  

In a nutshell, here’s how each technology can be defined: 

Robotics is a branch of technology relating to physical robots 

These are machines that can be programmed to carry out actions autonomously. In most cases, it can be agreed that there is no requirement for a robot to “think”. It simply needs to be able to carry out its programmed tasks and physically interact with the world 

AI is a branch of computer science 

It involves the development of computer programs to do tasks that would otherwise need human intelligence to complete. For example, navigating a route, recommending products on a retail website or playing a game of chess (think of the AI Deep Blue, which beat the world champion Gary Kasperov in 1997).  

AI involves creating algorithms, and it often involves some degree of machine learning. This is where the algorithm can be ‘trained’ to respond to a particular input in a certain way, and so ‘learns’ how to respond in the future.  

What are AI robots? 

Now, let’s turn our attention to the primary cause of confusion about the differences between AI and robotics – artificially intelligent robots.  

These are physical robots, controlled by AI programs. They’re needed to carry out more complex tasks, such as navigating a path through a busy and ever-changing warehouse. Another good example is the self-driving car, which can use AI algorithms to detect and avoid hazards in the road.  

What about software bots? 

One area where things become a little more complex is software bots. You’ll know these as chatbots used on retail websites, or the search engine bots or web crawlers used by the likes of Google to scan and categorise websites. 

Some people think of these software bots as robots, and it becomes even more confusing when these bots use AI algorithms. But under the definition of a robot as a physical robot able to interact with its environment, this isn’t the case. Software bots only exist within a computer, so they aren’t classed as part of robotics.  

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